The epistle reading for this Sunday contradicts the character in Kenny Chesney’s song.
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
On the one hand, we have dying and being with Jesus in heaven. By faith Paul gets the wonder of that future. He says, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better”. Paul was persecuted and imprisoned for his faith. His life on earth was hard.
There is a strain of Christianity rooted in this tradition. Slaves in the nineteenth century expressed this musically with spirituals like “All My Trials” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (which I sing at the end of the meditation video).
Our reading from the epistles, also lays out the benefits of continuing to live here on earth. Paul says that life on earth is “more necessary for you” and that he “will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith”.
What a contrast this is with that song we’ve all heard Kenny Chesney sing, “Everybody wanna go to heaven, but nobody wanna go now”. The song goes on to extol the earthly joys of women, whiskey, and partying all night. One of the lines says, “Say I’m coming but there ain’t no hurry,
I’m having fun down here.”
So, what’s the difference between Paul’s perspective and Kenny’s? Paul is focused outwardly on other people. He wants to stay here and help the people into whose lives he’s been called. He doesn’t want to go to heaven because he has a mansion over the hilltop. He wants to go to be with Jesus. For Paul it is all about the people he loves.
For the character in Kenny’s song, it is all about himself and the fun he is having. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That doesn’t mean that the women and men who answer Christ’s call physically die, although in some parts of the world that is what happens to those who place their faith in Jesus. When Jesus tells us to pick up our crosses and follow him, what does it mean? Jesus gave his life on the cross, not for himself, but for others. To follow him, means we no longer focus on our love for only ourselves but that we love others as we love ourselves.
In dying to self, it might seem that our world gets smaller, but in truth it means our world gets bigger because we move from being absorbed with only ourselves to being absorbed with loving Jesus and all those fellow humans who, like us, are created in God’s image. For our season here, we are blessed by being a blessing to our associates, friends, family, and faith community. And when our time on earth is done, we have a family reunion in heaven, the chief reunion of which will be with Jesus.
When you hear Paul’s words lined up against Kenny’s lyrics, you may be thinking, “I’m more like Kenny.” Try to remember that the story of the gospel is the story of God’s grace for us right where we are in our growth. If we trust Jesus and try to walk with him one step at a time, we grow more and more likely to begin to see both life and death through his eyes and with his heart for others. We both rest in his grace, knowing he loves us as who we are now, and grow in grace, because walking with him changes us.